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Normal, happy people have cake and smiles on their birthdays. I’d never had that. True, I wanted it when I was a kid, but at that moment, when I turned 22, it all seemed like a distant memory, something I thought of in a different life. Nevertheless, I hoped to feel happy and loved that day instead of sad and forgotten. My mother didn’t call, which was surprising because she always did. And there was also Celia, the only girl I liked ever since my last girlfriend had dumped me three years earlier.

I’d called Celia a couple of times. She never answered.

I spent my birthday in the 24-hour study room at the UCSB. Carla and Marisol were there, focused on their homework. The place was semi-empty, except for us, and a young Asian kid with glasses sat on a far corner, reading assiduously and taking notes. I read a dictionary, collected words, wrote them down, and divided them into verbs, nouns, adverbs, and adjectives that I would later file and put in a binder for future study. But I wasn’t that focused. I would glance at my phone every five seconds, hoping for a phone call that might never come.

Carla noticed that.

“What’s wrong?” She asked.

I wanted to tell her it was my birthday. I didn’t. I don’t know why. I thought it’d be better if I kept that to myself.

“Girl troubles?” Marisol asked the same way you ask when you assume you know the answer.

“Yes. I haven’t heard from her in three weeks.” I nodded.

Carla put down her pen, took off her glasses, and put them on top of her books. “Why don’t you call her?”

“I did. She doesn’t answer, and I don’t want to sound desperate.”

But I was desperate.

I spent the next day in the box, watching a DVD I got at a Blockbuster-wannabe store in Isla Vista. The movie was titled Thank You For Smoking, a 2005 film starring Aaron Eckhart, where he portrayed a tobacco’s chief spokesman who explained in a satirical way, with a touch of delight and gratulation, why smoking was such a great idea.

That reminded me I had to buy cigarettes soon.

I stopped looking at the computer screen for a moment and glanced at my cell, hoping to get the phone call I was desperately longing for. I don’t know if it was the intensity of my stare at that moment or the previous two phone calls I’d made, but Celia’s call lit up both my face and my phone when I was beginning to lose hope. It took me three seconds to answer, mainly because I couldn’t believe my luck. I had a bad feeling this was just a dream. “Hello?” I said, feigning nonchalance, making her think I hadn’t run out of nails to bite while waiting for her call.

“Sorry I didn’t call you before,” she said.

To my eyes, she hadn’t done anything wrong.

“It’s ok,” I said. “I know you’re busy with school.”

We had one of those constant and unwanted moments of silence. Meanwhile, I imagined her, breathing slowly, sitting on a couch with the phone pressed against her right cheek and a mountain of books, notebooks, pens, and pencils in front of her, resting on a coffee table.

“Do you remember what a parable is?” She asked, and I thought that was a random question.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s a figure of speech. Jesus used parables to talk to people.”

“That’s right,” she said, and I imagined that a smile lit up her face. “I have something to tell you. I hope you can understand it.”

And that was how her parable started.

“There is a plant outside my house. I’ve been watering this plant every day, paying so much attention to it I’ve forgotten about my education and even my God. I want to keep watering this plant, but God doesn’t want me to. He wants me to move forward with my life because the plant and I don’t follow the same path.”

Knowing what she was talking about, I said, “I don’t think the plant would mind knowing you have a special relationship with God.”

“I know that,” she continued, “but God also wants to have a relationship with the plant.”

I thought about what she was saying. Something didn’t add up.

It was time to be straight—no need to speak in parables. “I saw your reaction at church,” she said.

I could almost feel the razor-sharp tone of her voice, the weight of an imminent and truthful accusation. I’ve always thought of myself as a good liar, with an uncanny ability to get into and out of trouble at ease, leaving people no time to find out what I said wasn’t real. But I couldn’t lie to her. Since day one, I had a feeling she knew what my real thoughts and feelings toward God were. She wasn’t a naïve person. She was smarter than me. The size of my silence told her what she wanted to hear.

“I think we should stop seeing each other,” she said, and a slight quivering in her voice suggested she didn’t mean what she said.

“Can I see you tonight?” I asked, clinging to a last thread of hope. The size of her silence prolongated, too, and I could feel the thread was about to rip, disintegrate, and become nothing, a memory of a story that never had a proper ending, mainly because it didn’t have a proper beginning.

“Ok,” she said, and a rapid, unexpected throb inside my chest reminded me what love felt like.

It’d been three years since I had that feeling.

She lived on Del Playa St., in Isla Vista, a street known for its vociferous, loud-mouthed students who partied at all hours, played Beer Pong on their yards, and drank excessive amounts of alcohol; they were half-naked and completely wasted on a regular basis. In contrast, it was easy to know where Celia lived because her house was the only one with the curtains down, the door closed, and the serenity of a quiet church on a day without service.

I stood outside her door, having a brief moment of doubt. I had my hands inside the pockets of a black jacket I was wearing over a dark grey long sleeve shirt. I had on the black Dickies I normally wear for work, as well as a pair of classic, black and white Converse I’d recently bought. It was seven in the evening, the sun was beginning to disappear into the sea, and the last days of April were fading with it. Knocking on the door, I realized my hands were sweaty, mainly because they were inside my pockets or mostly because I was as nervous as a turkey in November.

Nobody opened the door, and twenty seconds felt like twenty years while waiting for her to come out. I knocked again, willing to wait two more decades for her to come.

And she did.

The look on her face suggested she’d cried, and the long sleeves of her light blue turtleneck sweater were wet with her tears. Her black, long hair covered her ears, making her look like the Virgin Mary. Realizing I was looking at her hands, she hid them inside the pockets of her blue jeans.

“Would you like to come inside?” She offered.

I nodded.

The place was small. There was a room in front of the main door, a living room in the middle, and a small kitchenette on the right. A black, good-looking girl came out of the room, said hello, and walked toward a bathroom behind the kitchenette.

“How many roommates do you have?” I asked, unsure how I could get to the point but knowing I had to get there sometime soon.

“Just her,” Celia said while walking toward the kitchenette.

“Would you like some water?”

“Please.”

There was a round, wooden table in the middle and three chairs underneath. “Sit,” she said while pulling out a chair for me. She brought two bottles of water from a white refrigerator and put them on the table.

We sat, and yet another moment of silence covered the place. You never know what to say when you know this could be the last conversation you’d have with that particular person. I thought my feelings were immature. I didn’t know if other people would fall in love as I did, fast and for no apparent reason, and even worse, with someone who clearly lives a life different from mine.

“So, you said you saw my reaction at church,” I said, trying to build up the courage to make a sentence that could be easier under different circumstances. “What exactly did you see?”

She took a sip of water, building up the courage to speak her own way. “You’re not ready to have a relationship with God. Granted, you know a lot about Him because you read His word, but you also need to open your heart and have faith; that’s the only way you can truly understand His love.”

I thought about it. And yes, I was opening my heart to her because she was here, right next to me. But God? He is only an idea; the main character of a magical story passed down through generations and hammered down into the heads of people whose main role is to believe in Him. No questions asked.

What is wrong with having questions, anyway?

Perhaps I was looking at it the wrong way. I was hoping Celia wouldn’t get a pen and a piece of paper and make me sign up for Jesus’ daily newsletters. I mean, the way she was talking to me felt as if she was trying to sell me heaven in a bottle, the same way Margarita had talked to me about Amway earlier that year.

No, wait, they actually say you have free will.

I wanted to say something, but my heart was aching. The corny and sentimental part of me wanted to agree to everything she wanted, and it clearly looked as if she was playing me to see how willing I was to be with her. But I’m a rational person and think I always will be. I can’t have blind faith.

“I’ve gotta go,” I said, stood up, and walked away.

“Wait!” She yelled. I’ve never heard her yell before.

The look on her face was priceless. It was as if she were sure I would succumb and say I wanted to have a relationship with God, as long as I could also have another kind of relationship with her. True, I wanted to, but my tiny amount of wisdom suggested it was time for me to walk away. Walking away is always better than arguing.

She followed me outside. “Gabriel, please!”

I stopped, turned around. “What now?” I said while slowly putting aside the love I was beginning to feel for her.

“I didn’t expect this reaction,” she admitted.

“I know. Anybody else would’ve done what you wanted. I can’t do that.”

Feigning surprise, she put some of her hair behind her left ear. “What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean.” I rolled my eyes. It pisses me off when people think I’m stupid.

Silence.

She swallowed. I could see defeat in her eyes. True, she saw my reaction at church, and while using every inch of her sagacity and understanding of the male brain, she thought she could make me follow her faith to be able to conquer her love—what a conniving, little church-goer.

“Look,” I said, “you’re cute, I admit it, but I can’t just pretend I like your God. Besides, I also saw your reaction when we were having lunch last time we spoke, and I told you about my job situation. You know I’m broke as fuck, pardon my French, and maybe this is not a good moment for us to do anything. So, putting God aside and coming down to a more rational conclusion, I think you’re right. I think we-”

She didn’t let me finish my sentence. I didn’t know how to finish it, anyway. She sprang quickly toward me, grabbed my face with both hands, and kissed me. My eyes were opened for three seconds while I tried to understand if this moment was just a dream because it clearly felt like it. My lips were slightly opened, too, making room for a more intense and moister kiss. I didn’t know how long it lasted, but I realized it was shorter than the time I spent knocking on the door.

When she let go of me, both my face and my genitals were throbbing. She gave me a look, the look you get when you know the interaction had come to an end. She walked back into the door, got in, and never talked to me again. I did see her a couple of times after that, from afar, but I never dreamt of a future with her again.

In conclusion, I don’t want to be anybody’s plant. I don’t need to be watered and taken care of, unless I’m dying on a hospital bed. And it doesn’t matter how infatuated I am with someone, I have to be wise enough to see when there is no future and it’s time to look other ways and find what I’m looking for in life. It doesn’t matter how long it takes me.

 

Photo by Ulleo.

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